As something of a contrarian, I was skeptical about Elden Ring during the game’s hype cycle. As it kept getting voted for most anticipated game at the Game Awards and as many of the journalists I followed seemed to be salivating at any hint of what the game would be like, I rolled my eyes. Wasn’t it just the Dark Souls people making another game? Slapping GRRM onto the writing team certainly wasn’t an exciting proposition for me personally but I supposed that maybe explained why so many people were particularly excited for Elden Ring. It wasn’t until the game actually released and I heard people really talk about the magic of the experience that I finally got why the anticipation had been so high. As I heard about the skillfully designed open world, all the cool builds available in the game, and saw videos of the sick monsters that people were facing, my heart grew three sizes and I found myself considering if Elden Ring could be a game for me, too. There was one thing that had me hesitant: I had actually never played a Dark Souls game. As amazing as Elden Ring seemed to be, at its core it was still fundamentally one of these notoriously hard FromSoft titles and I had never sunk my teeth into one before. So as a test to see if I could even get into the core loop that drives this series, I started playing the one Souls game that I already had in my library: Bloodborne.
My relationship with Bloodborne was a tumultuous one. I played the game for a couple of hours and wasn’t fully seeing the appeal until I managed to overcome Father Gascoigne – when I defeated him, I almost jumped out of my seat and I was shouting with joy at the accomplishment. The satisfying payoff that comes when you finally overcome a major obstacle is easily the selling point. That rush of excitement was enough to drive me through a significant portion of the game, but the further I got in the more friction I found. After a while, the things that I found frustrating began to outnumber the things I found enjoyable, and as the dopamine hit from beating bosses decreased more and more the aspects of the game that drove me crazy began to feel more insurmountable than the game’s combat challenges. Bloodborne ultimately let me down, but luckily Elden Ring was there to catch me when I fell.
I’ve been playing Elden Ring for something like ten or so hours at the time of writing. During that time I’ve explored a not-insignificant portion of west Limgrave, defeating multiple minor bosses as well as finally eliminating the Fell Omen, Margarine. I’ve experimented with a number of the game’s basic mechanics while trying to settle on a build for my character that suits my playstyle. And what I’ve seen during that time is that basically everything about Bloodborne that didn’t really work for me has been addressed in Elden Ring, plus some other improvements I wasn’t even necessarily looking for or didn’t know to ask for. So for my first impressions article, I’m going to focus specifically on the aspects of Elden Ring that are working better for me than my experience with Bloodborne.
Bloodborne and Elden Ring speak to very different types of fantasy fans. Bloodborne’s Yarnham deals primarily in supernatural horror, from Halloween basics like zombies and werewolves to the sort of eldritch horror that one might see in a Lovecraft story. The locations have a Victorian England vibe with the style of dress and the level of technology. Elden Ring instead plays in the realm of high fantasy, specifically the Tolkienesque dark fantasy that GRRM is known for in his own stories. We’re talking castles, knights, magic, the whole nine yards. I have an appreciation for both of these types of stories, but the world of Elden Ring is a lot more familiar for me and appeals more directly to my preferences and sensibilities. But an aesthetic by itself isn’t enough to turn me off of a game – my issues with Bloodborne’s fantasy versus that of Elden Ring comes down to the more mechanical issues of art direction and graphical presentation.
Bloodborne is a dark game, and I mean that as literally as possible. It is dark. There is very little light. It is difficult to see most of the time. The environments in Yarnham are all drab urban buildings at nighttime, except for the one section of the game that takes place in one of Miyazaki’s infamous poison swamps. In terms of color, everything is grey, brown, black, and crimson; the environments are muddy and difficult to differentiate from one another. Most importantly, it being hard to see means that it is easier to miss important details. I walked right past a plot-significant early game character and missed out on a major storyline simply because I couldn’t see her. And then almost did the same thing again later – the only reason I found some people over others is because they would say things out loud, notifying me that a person was nearby. Elden Ring looks like Okami by comparison. The sun comes out, there are environments that actually know what primary colors are, and the locations and characters that are on screen at any given time are fully legible to the player. And I choose that word legible intentionally. I have very low standards when it comes to graphics (if you need evidence, please refer to my positive review of Pokemon Violet). I don’t need the game to be a masterclass in technical performance; I just need to be able to see so I can actually play the game. Elden Ring thankfully clears that bar.
The structure of the world plays a big part in this as well. Bloodborne is a linear experience while Elden Ring is an open world experience. Now to be clear, neither of these is a turnoff for me. If anything, I tend to prefer more linear experiences as being more authored allows them to execute a specific vision at a high level compared to the meandering pace and meager narrative of open world games. But it’s important to consider what that means in the context of what a Souls game is like. These are games where you regularly run into challenges that feel insurmountable. A particular boss will present a challenge that knocks you down over and over again. Maybe you need a break, or to go somewhere else and get some more Blood Echoes/Runes (I’m just gonna get both wrong and call them souls) in order to build up your character. Maybe you need to get some new equipment or load up on useful consumables before you try again. The Soulsborne style of game is a very specific experience, one that in my view benefits more from open world design than some other genres might.
In Bloodborne, most of the time hitting a roadblock requires you to backtrack – you’re going to run around in an area you’ve cleared already to see if you missed anything or to reliably grind souls and healing items. But Elden Ring’s open world means that anytime you hit a wall, you have a lot more opportunities to go somewhere else and explore an area that is new to you, making new discoveries and making progress in the game, rather than stopping to grind. The game’s map system makes this easy, too; you can fast travel from anywhere to any point of grace you’ve unlocked, and you can place markers on locations you want to come back to later so that you don’t forget about a cave or a fort that you haven’t managed to clear out yet. Being able to take a break from a boss fight while still making progress in the game is a huge boon, and has been really useful for improving my character before major confrontations. Often I’ll get to an area, make a quick test run to see if I feel that I am ready for it, and if not I simply go explore one or more alternative locations in the world and circle back later. There’s very little need to repeat a familiar location when the option is available to get the resources you need while also exploring somewhere new.
One of the things I discussed in my final thoughts on Bloodborne was the lack of interest in movement. Bloodborne is essentially a boss rush between areas you walk through for no reason other than the aesthetic. There aren’t really puzzles, or movement challenges, or interesting conversations to be had. I shared how in Hollow Knight, just the joy of getting around and moving in different ways made a huge difference in my appreciation for the game. Elden Ring accomplishes the same by making quite a few adjustments to the way that movement works. Sprinting, for example, does not consume stamina when you are not in combat, allowing you to move at maximum speed freely when there are no stakes involved. Your character can also jump, which makes traversing vertical space more interesting than just finding a ladder. When you sprint and then jump, you jump farther, creating opportunities for areas in the game where you can jump to interesting new spots to explore or to get the metaphorical jump on an opponent.
I would be remiss not to mention here the most important new movement option: Torrent. Torrent is a magical horse you receive pretty early on in the game who can be summoned with a ring. On horseback you move faster even just at a steady trot, and you can use the sprint button to gallop for an even more significant boost in speed. Like your character Torrent can jump; unlike your character Torrent can double jump, allowing you to clear much larger gaps both horizontally and vertically. Traversing the world in this way is exhilarating and helps you to clear massive spaces in very little time. Torrent’s speed is useful for escaping combat encounters where you realize you are in over your head, or for rushing into combat encounters where you really need to extra maneuverability. I’ve used Torrent, for example, to charge ballistae from a distance while dodging the bolts during the approach. The expanded movement options in Elden Ring not only feel great for getting around outside of combat, but they improve your combat options as well.
Combat is the bread and butter of FromSoft’s Soulslike offerings and it’s the one area of Bloodborne I generally had a positive sentiment about. At the end of the day, it was always fun to take my threaded cane and learn the patterns of a new enemy type or boss, whittling them down until I finally seized victory after a number of brutal deaths. But even in this area Elden Ring has found a lot of what I enjoyed about Bloodborne’s combat and expanded it in some way. There’s an honest to god stealth mechanic, for example, making it much easier to get behind enemies you haven’t engaged yet and hit them with visceral attacks. Against most weaker enemies types, this is a guaranteed kill, making it a viable approach to a big encounter to sneak around the enemy camp and slowly pick off as many as you can. True ranged combat is also possible in Elden Ring where it was not in Bloodborne. The pistol and blunderbuss in Bloodborne are really just there to set up visceral attacks and are not meant to be viable choices in combat. In Elden Ring, having a ranged battle with an enemy archer or magician is something I’ve done quite a few times, as well as being able to use arrows from long distance to snipe frustrating enemies with headshots rather than having to engage them directly. Being able to run a stealth archer build the way I would in other open world fantasy games has been great, but the beauty of Elden Ring is that this is only one of the multiple viable approaches to the game’s combat system.
The ability to experiment with different styles, and do so earlier and with less friction than in Bloodborne, has been the other part of Elden Ring’s combat that has really grabbed me. In Bloodborne I started with the threaded cane and I never once put it down. I never found a second dex-based weapon for my character to try. This was in part due to just how limited the weapons were, and how difficult they were to find. Elden Ring certainly has specialty weapons that you can’t just buy at a store, but it also has stores where you can actually purchase a good variety of basic weapons to experiment with and discover your playstyle. I’ve tried out using a weapon and a shield, dual wielding weapons, as well as using a single weapon both in and out of the two-handed fighting style, and switched weapons in the process of trying out all of these options. I’ve also experimented with different armor weights to see what is most comfortable for me and best fits my approach to the game. You could experiment in Bloodborne too, but there were less experiments to do and depending on your build, it would take quite a bit longer to ever reach a point where you could try out a different approach for your character. Elden Ring immediately allowed me to dabble and find what worked best for me, and although “what works best” continues to change as I find new gear and abilities, it’s satisfying to see my character develop and change over time.
It has been interesting for me to reflect on my experience with Elden Ring up to this point compared to my feelings on Bloodborne. At the end of the day, the core appeal of these games is still the same. The most important mechanics are unchanged and the meat of the experience is still all about these wickedly challenging combat encounters that test your ability to learn patterns over time. I wouldn’t even say that Elden Ring is easier – I had a much harder time against the first major boss in this game versus my first boss in Bloodborne, and I’ve had more than one foe where I’ve died easily a couple dozen times trying to get to the point where I could defeat them. But although it is just as hard as Bloodborne and the core mechanics remain the same, all these other factors work together to create a more approachable, frictionless experience. Bloodborne felt like I was fighting so much about the game to get to the good stuff; in Elden Ring, all the barriers to appreciation are gone so that the good stuff can stand front and center.
Perhaps it was inevitable that this is how things turned out – after all, the only reason I even tried Bloodborne was as a litmus test for whether or not I could like Elden Ring. From the very beginning I was only giving that game the time of day because I was thinking about this one instead. It’s not a fair way to approach or evaluate a game, and likely prevented me from having the ideal experience with it. That said, having that point of comparison has deepened my appreciation for what Elden Ring is doing. There’s a lot about the game that I can see and appreciate as a result of having experienced Bloodborne first, rather than using something like Skyrim or Breath of the Wild as my point of comparison for understanding the game. So in that sense, I’m still glad I took the time to give Bloodborne a try. Although it turned out that game wasn’t for me, it was the push I needed to finally dive into Elden Ring, a game I am enjoying very much.
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